A year after nearly everyone picked the Hiroshima Carp to win their first Central League pennant since 1991, that elusive goal is now firmly on the agenda of the men in red.
Hiroshima’s offense had scored 383 runs going into Wednesday’s games, more than any team in Japan, while the pitching and defense surrendered 293 — one run more than the Yokohama BayStars’ CL-best 292.
Two years ago, the Carp had the CL’s best offense, and people expected center fielder Yoshihiro Maru and second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi to set the table at the top of the order. With the return of veteran first baseman Takahiro Arai to further bolster the offense and veteran big leaguer Hiroki Kuroda back alongside ace Kenta Maeda, the picture could not have been brighter.
But things went wrong early. Kuroda stuttered in the transition back to Japan and the offense fell off the table.
“Kikuchi and Maru didn’t get it done from the start of the season, they didn’t get on base and we stopped scoring runs,” Arai told Kyodo News on Saturday in Yokohama.
“This year, those two have been on fire. (Outfielder Seiya) Suzuki has become a monster. But even more, it’s been a team effort. Everybody is contributing, so it’s like every game there’s a different hero.”
Suzuki left a mark in interleague — and on the Orix Buffaloes — by hitting a game-winning home run in three straight days, two walk-off blasts and an eighth-inning, go-ahead homer. Suzuki also suffered a letdown when he had a chance to start regularly last year, becoming noticeable for errors in the field and on the bases.
“To be honest, my play was erratic, playing in front of big crowds I tightened up and was told that I was like a different player every game,” Suzuki said. “This year I wanted to work on my hitting so I wouldn’t be relegated to a platoon role.”
“I mishit a lot of balls last year. I love hitting home runs in batting practice, but it wasn’t helping me in games, because it’s not the same, so I’ve changed my focus in BP. I needed to do something and one thing was to improve the quality of my practice.”
Arai has played his part as well. Although he didn’t have a bad homecoming season in 2014, after seven years with the CL rival Hanshin Tigers, Arai steamed past the career 2,000-hit mark this spring like nobody’s business and is now two shy of the 57 runs he drove in last season.
“We were not used to being the favorites, of having high expectations placed on us,” said Arai, who admitted those hopes had not been hovering over the Carp clubhouse this spring.
With golden gloves becoming the norm for Kikuchi and Maru, the Carp defense was also an area everyone expected would be strong in 2015. But the Carp returned to their old error-prone ways with Kosuke Tanaka making 22 in his first full season at shortstop.
“The pressure affected my fielding last year,” Tanaka said. “It was my first full season, but I’ve been through it now. I’m more relaxed now.”
At the plate, Tanaka has become a huge table setter, his 50 walks through Sunday exceeding the 47 of Maru, who had become Hiroshima’s walk king.
With third base an offensive hole in 2015, the Carp added the big bat of Hector Luna over the winter. When Luna went down with a hamstring injury on April 17, 27-year-old utility infielder Tomohiro Abe picked up the slack. When big-hitting outfielder Brad Eldred was sidelined on June 15, Luna was ready to return and manager Koichi Ogata was able to find more playing time for outfielder Ryuhei Matsuyama.
While the pitching was not the biggest issue in 2014, the loss of Maeda to the majors and Daichi Osera to injury, put the spotlight on the pitching staff. But Kuroda and last year’s CL ERA leader Kris Johnson have done well, while the club is getting a career year from 2012 rookie of the year Yusuke Nomura, who won his 10th game on Tuesday.
With Shota Nakazaki appearing to be gaining confidence in the closer role, the addition of middle relievers Bradin Hagens and Jay Jackson have meant the Carp really only need six innings from their starting pitchers.
“Kuroda came into this season with something to prove, and the additions of Hagens and Jackson have been big for us,” Arai said.
“Everyone on the team is contributing, doing his part, and it is a lot of fun.”